For many, The Gambia is a country with the best beaches that invite visitors to laze and linger on package tours, but the tiny sliver of Africa’s smallest country has more than just the sand, sun and sea to offer.
With some of the most beautiful and welcoming people just as in its name “the smiling coast,” fishing villages and nature reserves are within easy reach of the clamorous Atlantic resorts, eco-lodges and small wildlife parks dot the inland, and it’s a bird lovers’ utopia.
It is rich in history, from the great empires of Africa to the transatlantic slave trade. It is the home of Kunta Kinteh, a slave captured from the mouth of the River Gambia in a village called Juffereh in the country’s north bank region.
The Gambia provides some amazing opportunities for bird watching. It has over 540 species and everything is in relatively close proximity, meaning you don’t have to travel far to see some amazing things – you’ll even find a whole host of exotic species in your hotel gardens. So whether you’re a first timer, a keen amateur or an enthusiast looking for particular species we guarantee you’ll find something to inspire you.
Chris Packham is a presenter for the BBC and has been leading bird watching tours for The Gambia Experience for many years with his preferred guide, Malick Suso. He is a massive advocate for The Gambia, both as a holiday destination in its own right and as a supreme birdwatcher’s paradise.
“I am still drawn by The Gambia, even after 20 years – it is only a few hours away, inexpensive, safe and very friendly. The food is fab, the sun shines and there is a great range of hotels,” Chris Peckham.
Chris finds himself returning once again to the small, quiet and simply superb Bakotu Hotel – visiting the wildlife haven at Makasutu Forest in my home city of Brikama, which surrounds the beautiful lodges at Mandina with their luxurious pool, amazing food and tranquil river setting.
It is a chance of seeing the widest range of birds, including trips to Farasutu, Lamin Rice Fields, Brufut Forest and Tujereng, with walking tours of Kotu stream and the local area and a boat trip, enabling you to see water birds and the added bonus of an occasional dolphin.
There is an abundance of birdlife in and around the hotels so, even if you have just a passing interest, don’t forget to pack your binoculars.
Tourism contributes at least 16% to the country’s GDP and its Ministry of Tourism and Culture has a five year strategic plan which seeks to guide the development and realization of the aspirations of the Tourism Industry for the next five years.
Over the years, The Gambia has made significant achievements in Tourism. These achievements must be improved upon and it is in this regard that concerted efforts were made to propel the industry to make the West African nation a “Tourism Haven.”
The sector provides direct employment for 35,000 Gambians, indirect employment for 40,000 Gambians, generated foreign exchange earnings of US$ 85,000,000 in 2013, and attracted foreign direct investment of US$ 45 million over the last 5 years.
The past gains registered by the industry have been put to the test by the unfortunate events of the Ebola crisis though The Gambia has registered zero cases.
“Whilst the Tourism Industry has demonstrated some degree of resilience, the fact remains that the industry has taken some beating; a beating that has made us, the stakeholders, have a re-think in terms of ensuring some cushioning should future threats to the resilience of our industry present itself,” said Benjamin Roberts, Minister of Tourism and Culture.
Transforming The Gambia into the envisaged Tourism Haven calls for us joining hands and supporting each other in that initiative. It will help create jobs and bring about improved infrastructure. This is “an initiative that has started well,” Minister Roberts believe.
Most of the tourists that visit the Gambia come from the UK and the Scandinavia. This is why the tourism transformation effort has been shifted to attract US citizens, especially African-Americans who seek to reconnect to their roots.
HE Sheikh Omar Faye is the Gambia’s Ambassador in Washington. His embassy on Wisconsin Avenue is calling on African-Americans to cross back the Atlantic to The Gambia and visit their ancestral heritage.
“Let them go and visit the land of Kunta Kinteh and see one of the most peaceful and beautiful countries in the world. Some may even visit on the basis of religious tourism because The Gambia is a nation with religious tolerance and coexistence – that is second to none,” the West African envoy said.
Faye added that the country surrounded by Senegal on all three sides expect for the West where the Atlantic Ocean lies on its 50 mile stretch has great investment opportunities and a gateway to reach other parts of Africa.
Talking of a gateway to other parts of Africa, that was exactly what The Gambia was during the slave trade. It was a key slave trade post and it was critical in ending slavery. Its river runs deep into mainland Africa with many of the captured slaves brought across the Atlantic from James Island to Maryland and South Carolina, where they were sold before taken south to work in plantations.
A slave ship called “Glasgow,” left from the Port of Leigh in Scotland on the 22nd May. 1764.AD. The ship’s captain was Geo Smith had a crew of 11 members. The “Glasgow” disembarked from The Gambia with 114 enslaved Africans; upon arrival in Barbados on 26th August 1765.AD, only 93 Africans disembarked. All Registered ships left the Ports of England issued with clearance passes.
In 1663 a ship called “Maligetta” left England, captained by Mr Christopher Coleman an Adventurer. The ship belonged to the Company Royal Adventurers, (CRA). The ship arrived to The Gambia and left the port with 189 enslaved Africans aboard. 165 Enslaved Africans survived the Journey to disembark in Jamaica.
This is just a fraction of that history and that is why every year, the country organizes the Roots Home Coming Festival.
The festival commemorates the forced enslavement and transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. It supports African descendents in the Diaspora who are seeking to embark on a spiritual quest for further enlightenment, discovery, development and fulfillment whilst confronting a physical past and coming to terms with their true antecedence.
The Gambia has its beautiful river. You can take a cruise with coco leaves and mangroves waving as you pass beautiful green fields – such a beautiful ecosystem complimented by the smiles of the beautiful inhabitants.
Ecotourism can be The Gambia’s competitive advantage. Transforming local communities like the coastal village of Kartong into an ecotourism hub will be a start that will provide effective economic incentives for conserving and enhancing bio-cultural diversity and help protect the natural and cultural heritage.
It will increase local capacity building and employment opportunities.
Ecotourism is an effective vehicle for empowering local communities around the world to fight against poverty and to achieve sustainable development and with an emphasis on enriching personal experiences and environmental awareness through interpretation, ecotourism promotes greater understanding and appreciation for nature, local society, and culture.
Even though the tourism industry continues to be overlooked by government in terms of national budgetary allocations, with average allocations, over the last three years of 0.3% of Central Government Budget, it has not stop people like Malick Suso from looking forward to arranging half day and full day birding trips.
Suso has over 20 years of experience bird watching in The Gambia and knows the terrain and where to look for the rare species like no other. He’s also been described by BBC’s Chris Packham as one of the very best bird watchers and guides in the whole of The Gambia.
As Malick endeavor up the River Gambia, one of the tourists he guided said:
“it was not only Malick’s superb knowledge and awesome skill in locating, spotting and calling up birds that made our time with him so special. In addition to this it was also his passion for sharing his understanding of the people and culture of his country as we ventured ‘up river’ and away from the coast.”
He shows great initiative and flexibility in being sensitive to needs of tourists giving them the trip of a lifetime they really wanted. They learnt a great deal and have lots of fun in the process, coming away enriched by the time with him. He seemed to know nearly everyone and it was clear why he is liked and respected.
Abuko Nature Reserves is situated half an hour away from the main tourist area. It was established in 1968 as The Gambia’s first protected area and provides a good introduction to the country’s plants and animals. The pools in the reserve hold a substantial population of Nile crocodiles and attract a wide variety of birds, mammals and reptiles.
Abuko is home to a Zoo and more than 270 species of birds, including the green turaco, kingfisher, little greenbul and red-bellied paradise flycatcher. Mammals in the reserve include bushbuck, Maxwell’s duiker, Gambian redlegged sun squirrel and crested porcupine.
With plenty of fishing, surfing and skydiving to do, there is also Tanji Birds Reserve, Katchically Crocodile pool (with lots of spiritual history), Tanbi Wetlands National Park, Niumi National Park, Kiang West National Park, Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve, and River Gambia National Park.
Come to The Gambia and explore the Guinea savannah and woodland, go hiking, spotted hyena, baboons, green turtle as they nest their eggs, West African manatee, leopard, African clawless otter and bush duiker, watch dolphins play on Jinack Island, see the Western red colobus, callithrix and patas monkeys, as well as bushbuck, porcupines and the rare Mediterranean monk seal.
Catch some butterfish, barracuda, ladyfish and red snapper and harvest oyster from the mangroves with local women. At night, dance to cultural music around fireplaces and have the fun of a lifetime.
The main staple dish in The Gambia is rice with a choice of stew – made with fish, chicken, beef, lamb or goat – usually cooked with vegetables, spices and sometimes peanut butter.
When visiting The Gambia you’ll find a huge choice of restaurants to suit every palate including Italian, Indian, Chinese and Lebanese, as well as international restaurants selling everything from a full English breakfast to fillet steak with a peppercorn sauce.
Don’t forget this: traditional dishes and drinks are just exceptionally delicious – afra, akra, baobab juice, my favorite wanjo, domoda, okra stew, palm wine (I remember suum suum lol), tapalapa (get ‘kandimaa’), yassa, super kanja, palasas or benachin (with ruff).
(Writing by Sam Phatey; Additional Sourcing from Ministry of Tourism, The Gambia Experience, National Council for Arts and Culture, International Ecotourism Society; Editing by Sainey MK Marenah)